Migrant Children’s Wails Have Trump Spinning

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Due to hardline immigration policies the White House has engineered along the U.S. border with Mexico, at least 2,000 children have been forcibly separated from their parents and placed in makeshift detention centers — including tents and an abandoned Walmart store.

It’s possible that many more than 2,000 kids have been dumped into this limbo recently; there already are more than 10,000 children apprehended at the border who reside in shelters overseen by the federal government. Whatever their exact number, all of them face the likelihood of emotional and psychological unraveling.

“She was so traumatized that she wasn’t talking,” is how one children’s advocate described a young detainee to NBC. “She was just curled up in a little ball.” A recording that ProPublica released on Monday from inside one detention center offers a searing chorus of wails, cries and moans from children, apparently four to 10 years old, separated from their parents.

The White House, if you’ve been listening to President Donald Trump or members of his administration, didn’t set any of this in motion. And it’s unlikely that anyone on that team is going to acknowledge that they did, because doing so would violate basic tenets at the core of Trumpism: Don’t ever back down, and repeat lies with such confidence and frequency that your supporters believe you — and your critics go numb.

For the last several days the president has insisted that severing kids from their families at the border is due to Democrats’ “horrible and cruel legislative agenda.” The remedy, he says, is for Democrats to work with Republicans “on new legislation.” He re-emphasized all of this on Twitter on Monday, noting that Democrats should “CHANGE THE LAWS!” (A few minutes after that tweet, he repeated, more quietly, “Change the laws!”)

There isn’t a law mandating that migrant families be separated at the border, and Trump could order border agents and law enforcement to keep children with their parents if he really wanted to do so. But that didn’t stop the president’s apparatchiks from sticking with his party line all day on Monday.

“These minors are very well taken care of,” Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen told the National Sheriff’s Association in the morning. “Don’t believe the press.”

By Monday afternoon, Nielsen was repeatedly blaming Congress for her own president’s mistakes, spin she took with her into an evening press briefing at the White House. “We are trying to protect the children which is why I’m asking Congress to act,” she said.

Nielsen’s White House briefing also floated warnings suggesting that criminals and immigrants pretending to be parents made up a large portion of those apprehended at the border. In fact, the opposite is true — both of those groups are a small fraction of migrants detained at the Mexican border.

Teamwork is always a plus when facts like that become elusive and Sarah Sanders, the president’s press secretary, jumped on board during the same briefing. She offered a string of gossamer excuses about the separation policy that grew into more flagrant lies the longer she spoke.

“The president himself said that he doesn’t like this process, but once again it’s Congress’s job to change the law,” she said. “We’re not the ones responsible for creating this problem. We’ve inherited it.”

The Trump administration didn’t inherit any problem that matches the scale of the family breakups it’s pursuing. And the White House has been pondering using the blunt force of separations to achieve larger policy goals for some time. In fact, separating migrant children from parents to deter asylum-seekers was discussed as early as February 2017 by some of Trump’s immigration officials, according to documents obtained by NBC reporters.

Now that Team Trump is trying to enforce an epic crackdown on immigration along the border, it sure looks like it’s using the most abusive and malicious tools it can muster by targeting migrant children. The president will continue to deploy a verbal smokescreen around all of this, however, and the debate over family separations — and Trump’s response to it — has highlighted how heavy-handed and raw Trump’s propaganda can be.

“The people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition. Crime in Germany is way up,” Trump tweeted on Monday, while fabricating a bogus statistic about crime in Germany. “Big mistake made all over Europe in allowing millions of people in who have so strongly and violently changed their culture!”

In case anyone missed his point, he doubled down in a follow-up tweet:

The president is wielding power in an era when social media platforms like Twitter allow him to navigate around print, broadcast and digital media outlets he doesn’t control. Distortions and lies from his own spin machine envelop and rally his supporters, tools that Trump — the consummate survivor — has been making handy and ever more dangerous use of since he first discovered them as an aspiring real estate mogul decades ago.

Trump also enjoys the advantage of living in a digital era that has left many voters and observers confused by the sea of information and misinformation washing around them. He’s more than happy to provide his own peculiar kind of clarity to the befuddled. And the test this presents to voters, legislators, jurists, journalists, law enforcement officials, and citizens around the world is whether Trump’s con game gets the better of institutions and basic decency; whether it gets the better of all of us, including those children detained at the border.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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